The Strange Words of Strategy


Today we face a world which some tell us is new and different. We have been assured by some that the ideas of the past have little relevance and must be changed to adapt to the future. Yet, if we discard the past, we are left with no foundation to build on. The most recent example of this is the growing use of a new concept labeled “gray wars” or the “gray zone.” Leaders from the special operations community are telling us that the world is new and different. But there are some very important concepts foundational to past military and national strategy that should not be ignored in the rush to the new buzzwords. As Colin Gray writes in his latest book, “problems in contemporary strategy are ever changing, but they all have common roots.”

Here at War on Rocks, Adam Elkus made an excellent critique of the squishy, nascent concept that has been labeled gray war (“50 Shades of Gray: Why the Gray Wars Concept Lacks Strategic Sense”). Elkus suggests that if we properly understood the work of previous strategists, we would better analyze the conflicts this buzzword is trying to describe. Whether or not you want “gray wars” to become an accepted part of the lexicon alongside asymmetric, hybrid, irregular, unconventional, fourth-generation, fifth-generation, and wicked conflict, Elkus’s piece is a must-read to help build the conceptual foundations for the discussion. In a follow up piece, “Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here: You Can Not Save The Gray Zone Concept,” he continued his blistering but systematic dismantling of the novelty of the idea.

The gray wars dialogue is just the most recent in a trend toward turning our back on historical precedent and previous strategic concepts. This past summer in the pages of Infinity Journal (free subscription), I attempted to make a similar case regarding to the idea of Air-Sea Battle, (or JAM-GC as it is now called). Debate over the operational concept which came to be known as Air-Sea Battle has been a large part of naval strategic discussion of the past several years. Despite the volume of words that have been spent on the subject, few have engaged with the actual theory and classical concepts of naval strategy. In my article, “D-All of The Above: Connecting 21st Century Naval Doctrine to Strategy,” I make the case that a better understanding of contemporary naval discourse’s place within the ideals of classical naval strategy will not only help us better understand proposals and counter-proposals, but it will also help strategists to better evaluate and develop future thinking.

In order to understand these debates in their appropriate context, we must also look to the difference between the nature and the character of war. For that, we must turn to Christopher Mewett’s indispensable 2014 War on the Rocks article, “Understanding War’s Enduring Nature Alongside its Ever Changing Character.” Despite the clarity of the concepts involved, in recent months we have continued to hear knowledgeable and well-meaning experts ignore the important nuance of a proper description and to tell us the nature of conflict is changing. Perhaps a quarterly read of Mewett’s excellent explanation is in order for all of us.

Admittedly, the importance of the history of our ideas, and the background of the words we use in our national security discussions, are not new observations. As World War I came to a close, Adm. William Sims returned to his home in Newport, Rhode Island. He commanded all U.S. naval forces in the war, the Navy’s equivalent of Black Jack Pershing, and his coordination and cooperation with the British Admiralty had been central to the defeat of the German U-boats in the North Atlantic. However, when he returned to America, his temporary promotion to full admiral was rescinded. He dropped back to rear admiral and assumed his previous position as president of the Naval War College.

In his first convocation speech at the War College after the end of the war, Sims knew his audience was full of what today’s navy would call “fleet operators.” They were the men who had spent years implementing strategy and national policy, both in combat and in peacetime operations around the world. But, like Sims himself when he arrived as a student in Newport in 1912, they had little knowledge of the conceptual foundations and intellectual frameworks that surrounded the pursuit of their chosen profession. Experts in the material and the execution of naval tactics, most had little understanding of history, international relations, or policy.

In order to be successful senior officers, and to contribute to their profession, and strategy and policymaking at the highest levels, they were going to have to learn. Sims addressed the class, saying:

Some officers complain that they do not understand the terms, the strange words, used by the [naval war] college. I do not understand any of the strange words used by golfers, because I have never played the game, but I understand that some such words are necessary. They are equally necessary for the game of war. Every art must necessarily have its own rules, principles, and methods, and these must have names if we are to talk about them — and we cannot practice an art or play a game without talking about it.

In many ways, the Navy thought they were keeping Sims in his place. He had been advanced ahead of several more senior officers during the war and he was already known as a troublemaker who spoke his mind. Instead of advancing him to Washington (where he would end up anyway, testifying before Congress about American mistakes in the war), Sims was put in charge of educating the next generation of officers. Looking back with the hindsight of history, Sims likely wouldn’t have had it any other way. By caging him up in Newport, the Navy gave him the space to set the foundations for the War College and wargaming systems for the interwar years that would produce the American strategy and operational concepts that won World War II. Sims was correct that we must understand the “strange words” and ideas of previous strategists and policy thinkers in order to build the foundation under how we face the character of modern conflict. As John Bew states in the conclusion of Realpolitik: A History, “effective foreign policy is better served by a more textured analysis — a sense of patterns, interactions, and connections — than by new theories.”

There is a good chance that many will see these observations as pedantic. But this discussion is not offered up to exclude efforts to define the present or look to the future. Development and understanding of modern challenges requires us to think in new ways. If the Clausewitzian description of the nature and character of war is accurate, then war’s changing character requires constantly changing approaches. It is this balance, between the enduring elements of the nature of war and the changing elements of its character, which requires us to find a balance in how we describe and analyze today’s strategic issues using the foundational concepts of the past to inform the present.

Some readers might ask: When should we look to history for a guide? Perhaps those questions should be turned on their heads. Let’s instead ask: When or why shouldn’t we? It is clear that history does not repeat itself. It does not, and cannot, provide a chart or checklist for success in the present or future. As I’ve suggested before, history instead offers us guideposts and the background needed to ask the right questions. If others have asked similar questions in the past and we ignore what they learned, we are less likely to find the right questions today. And without good questions we will never get to good answers.

The future will surely have differences from the past. But that doesn’t mean we should disregard the ideas and concepts previous generations have built. They provide vital foundations. As Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote in his 1900 book The Problem of Asia:

… the instruction derived from the past must be supplemented by a particularized study of the indications of the future.


BJ Armstrong is a senior editor at War on the Rocks and an active duty U.S. Navy officer who is reading for his PhD in War Studies with King’s College, London. He has served as a search and rescue and naval special warfare helicopter pilot, the Officer-in-Charge of an amphibious helicopter gunship detachment, and in the Pentagon as a strategic analyst and staff officer. His book “21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era,” on the writing and thinking of Alfred Thayer Mahan, was published in 2013. This article represents his own opinions, which are not necessarily those of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or U.S. Government.